Raising a Stench

Magnus was a big guy.

I just returned from driving half an hour to visit a very large, fragrant flower. It was flagrant in its fragrance—never have I smelled a smell quite like that one, pervasive and invasive and just exceedingly putrid.

The titan arum (Amorphophallus titanum – and yes, for you Latin fans, that name really does mean, more or less, “giant, misshapen dick”) is a relative of the peace lily and has the largest unbranched inflorescence in the world. Most of us would say it’s the largest flower in the world, but that’s technically not correct. The pointy, phallic-shaped part seen in the diagram below–called the spadix– and the “petal” – which is a type of leaf called a spathe – are not the actual flowers.  The flowers are located at the very base of the spadix, which is hollow, and cannot be seen unless one peers down into the “bloom.”   The titan arum produces both male and female flowers, but at slightly different times so that self-polination is unlikely.


The plant, which is native to the jungles of Sumatra, has an interesting lifecycle. For the first 7-10 years of its life, it produces the leafy stalk seen in the diagram above.  (This is, apparently, actually a single leaf).  It stores up energy in its corm (which is the below-ground part of the plant) until the day it produces its first bud.  It very quickly grows in size (reaching as high as 10′)  until it is ready to open, usually in the evening.  As it opens, it produces heat (warming up to around human body temperature) and emits a very characteristic smell–the smell that earns it the name of “corpse plant.” According to Wikipedia, “Analyses of chemicals released by the spadix show the stench includes dimethyl trisulfide (like limburger cheese), dimethyl disulfidetrimethylamine (rotting fish), isovaleric acid (sweaty socks), benzyl alcohol (sweet floral scent), phenol (like Chloraseptic), and indole (like feces).” Apparently, the smell can carry up to 3 km. This attracts the flies and carrion beetles that are its primary pollinators.   And it must be efficient about this, because the spathe may begin to wilt within 12 hours. Usually within two days both spathe and spadix wilt away. Once it has flowered, it usually goes a few years before flowering again, although some plants have flowered twice in the same year.

McMaster University in Hamilton has several mature examples, dubbed Phoebe, Magnus, and Arthur, plus a number of younger plants that have not yet bloomed.  Magnus, the plant I saw blooming this evening, first bloomed in 2015, but sadly did not open completely.  Interestingly enough, McMaster apparently got their titans from “a dentist in New Hampshire that didn’t want to keep heating his greenhouse.”  (This article has more about the plants at McMaster.)

As you can see in the photo above, Magnus didn’t exhibit any performance anxiety this time. I had been monitoring its progress on Facebook, and in the late afternoon an update was posted that the spathe had started to unfurl. I arrived around 7:50 pm to see it nearly completely open. The greenhouse had positioned lamps so that viewers could see the rich burgundy colour of the spathe.  Framed by its siblings (all in the leaf stage), Magnus was regal and resplendent…and fragrant.

And to answer the question, “How did it smell?”  Here is an apt metaphor: Pain can be sharp and acute, or dull and throbbing.  If you think of smells the same way, it was more of the latter than the former.  The smell was literally everywhere, and I could smell it on my coat even after I arrived home.  It didn’t strictly smell like rotten meat–it was a more sulfurous smell than that, and more of a medley of rot, akin to standing in a garbage bin of food waste that had been in the sun all day.  It was glorious, and unforgettable.

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So, check another thing off the bucket list:  I’ve caught the ephemeral bloom and enchanting scent of the largest “flower” in the world.  It was absolutely worth the short drive on a Thursday night.